Lee K. Abbott Essay - Critical Essays


When asked to comment on minimalism for a special issue of The Mississippi Review, Abbott disavowed any relationship to that group, insisting he was a “mossback prose-writer who prefers stories with all the parts hanging out and whirling.” Abbott once said, “I ride with the Wild Bunch,” identifying himself with John Cheever, Peter Taylor, and Eudora Welty. He is most clearly connected, however, to the wild bunch of prose writers of the 1970’s and 1980’s that includes Barry Hannah, Richard Bausch, and Larry Brown—writers who create the voice of a down-and-out rural male from the South or the West who chases liquor, women, and enough money to get by. In the game of creating rough, redneck lyrical narrative, Abbott is self-consciously one of the best.

“Living Alone in Iota”

Reese, the protagonist in this story, has been dumped by his girlfriend and feels desolate: “She makes my ears bleed,” he tells the boys where he works. “I mean when she starts kissing my neck, I go off into a dark land. It’s like death, only welcome.” As a result of his loss, the protagonist is “love-sawed.” If the story has any specific statement of theme, it is when Reese tells the members of his crew, “Boys, I am being sand-bagged by memory.” He goes to Deming, New Mexico, a small town featured in a number of Abbott’s stories, to find his girlfriend. Drinking two six-packs of beer on the way, he arrives “his face yellow with hope,” and in a “state as pure and unbecoming as loneliness.”

In this wonderfully comic, laugh-out-loud story, Reese tries desperately to win Billy Jean La Took back, but she will have none of it, granting him only one chaste kiss. However, as Abbott says in his typical rural romanticism, “You could tell that kiss really ripped the spine out of him.” He tries to forget her with other women, but to no avail. Although he tries one last time to get her back, she remains as “distant from him as he from his ancestral fishes.” Three months later, in a flash of unmotivated insight, he says, “Boys I’m a fool.” This is one of Abbott’s purest lyrical love stories, creating a roughneck Romeo full of poor-boy poetry.

“The Final Proof of Fate and Circumstance”

This prize-winning story is a lyrical account of a man’s masculine identification with his father as he listens to the older man tell stories about his past. As the father tells of driving through the desert when he was in his twenties and accidentally hitting and killing a man, the son imagines the father in such detail that he identifies with him completely. When the father finds the body in the darkness, he feels the kind of tranquility that one feels at the end of a drama when, after the ruin is dealt out fairly, one goes off to drink.

The sense of catharsis felt at the end of a tragedy is continued by the narrator as he listens to more of his father’s stories “in which the hero, using luck and ignorance, manages to avoid the base and its slick companion, the wanton.” He senses he is in a warm place that few get to experience, where a father admits to being a lot like his son, a...

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